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Picture this: you’re eating shitloads of vegan food in an effort to gain weight, yet the needle on that scale just will. not. go. up. It’s really annoying. Despite this, it is possible to gain weight on a plant-based diet, even though your life choices and metabolism seem to be conspiring against you.
So in today's article, I will teach you some highly effective tips & tricks that you need in your life to get those plant-derived gains. Let's do it!
1. Get Enough Calories
"But I'm devouring mountains of food and the scale isn't moving, I must be a unique snowflake and it's impossible for me put on mass!!!" Yeah. No.
Your body burns a certain amount of calories per day. This number is typically referred to as your maintenance calories, or total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Consuming less calories than your TDEE means you'll lose weight. Consuming more calories means you'll gain weight. It's just highly unlikely that you're eluding these basic principles of thermodynamics.
Sure your metabolism might be incredibly fast (both a gift and a curse), and as plant foods typically contain a bunch of fiber and water it makes it particularly hard eating enough, but there is only one solution to this problem:
Eat more food. You may think that you couldn't possibly eat any more food in one day. But if you actually keep a food diary, and add up all the calories throughout the day (yes that means all snacks and even the soy milk in your coffee) it turns out you're way short of your caloric goals.
Or you may very well be one of the unlucky few that needs upwards of 4000-5000 calories to see any significant weight gain.
Alright so here's what you need to do:
1. If you're currently not keeping track of your food or total calorie intake, I recommend you to at least for a couple of days track all the foods you eat by using MyFitnessPal or Cronometer or some similiar calorie tracking device.
Yes, that means bringing out the digital scale or measurements cups so that you may accurately track the stuff you eat.
2. Head over to an online TDEE calculator (see below) which will roughly estimate your total daily energy expenditure (aka how much calories you burn per day).
3. Increase this number by 300-500 calories.
*For instance let's say your TDEE is 3000 calories, that means you'll have to eat 3300-3500 calories for weight gain.
4. Then it's simply (well not that simple in this case) a matter of getting these 3300-3500 calories every single day. Notice that I didn't write 'every other day' or 'when you feel like it.' It needs to be consistent if you really are serious about making a commitment to putting on mass.
5. If nothing happens, add 200 calories more. Wait for a week or two and watch your bodyweight. No change in weight?
6. Add 200 more. And so on so forth.
For more information about calculating your macros and TDEE - check out this article which explains how to do all of this in 5 easy steps: vegan macro calculator
2. Understand The Concept of Calorie Density
Why's it so frustratingly difficult gaining weight on a plant-based diet? To answer this question we need to understand the concept of calorie density.
It's not rocket science really (I promise):
Calories / Weight = Calorie Density.
As you can see in the picture above I've chosen a few plant foods and plotted out their calorie density, in this case calories per 100 g.
Vegetables, as a group, sits at an extremely low 25 calories. That means you could eat 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of vegetables and still not surpass 250 kcal. If you've ever consumed this much veggies in one setting A you may be insane and B you're certainly not hungry anymore. This is why consuming heaping plates of vegetables, and fruits, is a really awesome weight loss tool.
Even though you're not really eating a whole bunch of calories, the sheer food volume will literally stretch your stomach walls, which in turn sends chemical signals to your brain that you've had enough (1).
It's also part of the reason why a plant-based diet is not all that conducive to your weight gain goals. Omnivores on the other end of the spectrum have access to an abundance of really rich foods such as milk, cheese, other dairy products, eggs and fatty meats - which makes the whole bulking up thing relatively easy.
Here's what you want to do if you classify as a vegan hardgainer:
Eat more of the calorie-dense plant-based foods such as refined carbohydrates, dried fruits, and nuts and seeds.
What I'm NOT suggesting you to do is go drink a gallon of oil, or eat a bag of sugar every day. You still want to eat an abundance of unprocessed fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes in order to get all the nutrients your body needs to thrive - and then on top of that add a couple handfuls of dates and walnuts to reach total caloric goals.
I'll get back to this topic later on when discussing some specific awesome vegan foods for bulking up.
We've established how many calories to eat to allow for weight gain, but the struggle for a vegan hardgainer is making sure you're actually consuming those calories on a daily basis. Now a super effective tool for pounding down those calories is to make weight gainer smoothies.
It doesn’t take as much effort gulping down calories in liquid form compared to chewing the same amount of calories. Use this to your advantage and get creative with the smoothies.
Once I was short on calories and protein and needed something quickly. I was out of vegan protein powder so what I did was put three cans of chickpeas into a blender with some water.
I admit it was ever so slightly gag-inducing, but it accomplished the task and was definitely more doable than chewing through 800 grams of chickpeas.
There's no need to make a nasty chickpea puree. Smoothies can be made to be both calorie-dense and also absolutely delicious. A pretty tasty recipe for a vegan mass gainer shake would look like:
This would make a great tasting smoothie with somewhere around 1000+ calories.
(If you're not sure what vegan protein powder is the best, head over to our comprehensive guide to vegan protein powders).
4. Eat Plenty of Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates includes:
Pasta, tortillas, bread, noodles, flour-based products, white rice instead of brown, and so on and so forth. During the refining process some of the fiber and water is removed, and calorie density goes up. Both of which makes refined carbohydrates a perfect fit for the vegan that has a hard time putting on weight.
Compared to eating whole foods it's a hell of a lot easier eating large quantities of refined carbs without feeling too stuffed.
Most will have a way easier time devouring calories in the form of pasta with some good red sauce compared to cooked beans and brown rice.
"Hey so what happened to the concept of a whole food plant-based diet?"
Well again you'll have to exercise some common sense here - the majority of carbohydrate in your diet obviously shouldn't come from cakes and table sugar. Swapping out some whole grains for refined carbs is just a tool that can be used if you struggle with getting in enough calories. And also, pasta together with red lentil bolognese is a match made in heaven.
5. Always Keep Nuts and Seeds in Your Pockets
You will want to embrace nuts and seeds, as well as all kinds of nut butters. Why?
A gram of fat provides 9 calories whilst a gram of carbohydrate or protein provides 4 calories. This is why rich plant foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados are extremely potent weight-gaining tools. Compared to your typical starches they are super calorie-dense.
For instance 2 small handfuls of walnuts (~50 g) provides 327 calories! Considering the small volume this is a very efficient way of downing substantial amounts of calories. 327 calories is about the same amount of calories found in 100 g oats, which is a medium-large bowl of porridge. A couple of extra handful of nuts per day, or tablespoons of your favourite nut butter, will add several hundred calories and is a sure way to increase your bodyweight.
Fats are not evil or bad by any means if consumed as whole foods i.e nuts, seeds and avocados. Now slathering your food in oil is an entirely different thing from eating rich plant foods, and it's not something I recommend doing for a variety of reasons. Go for an avocado instead.
See our full article on other vegan fat sources and everything you need to know.
6. Keep Dried Fruits In Your Pockets
I just would like to mention that the picture above is my version of heaven. So. Many. Dates.
Anyways, the same principles apply here. When you dry fruits they lose more or less all their water content and thusly become more calorie-dense. So along with your nuts and seeds, you should also gorge yourself on dried fruits:
Dates, raisins, apricots, figs, peaches, prunes. Or chuck a few dates into your smoothie or oatmeal and enjoy a tastier meal.
7. Eat Really Tasty Plant-Based Food
Which of these two meals above are you more likely to gorge yourself on?
No I'm not saying beans aren't awesome, they are - I go through at least 10 cans per week myself. But we can probably all agree that eating 1000 or more calories in the form of vegan pizza is way easier than plain beans.
Eating delicious plant-based food simply means it's going to be a hell of a lot easier consuming enough calories. So I would advise you to try and put some more effort into your plant-based cooking. Explore different styles of cuisine; mexican, indian (my favorite), chinese, italian etc. Look up recipes you'd like to try and give them a go!
I know that when I make lentil bolognese with some whole-wheat pasta I could easily eat upwards of 1500 calories. Try and find the recipe that makes you salivate.
In desperate need of inspiration? Grab my free e-book by entering your e-mail below 🙂
8. Eat Your Food Fast
Eating more slowly reduces the amount of calories consumed and increases the feeling of satiety. So, increasing the amount of calories consumed means the opposite:
Eating as fast as possible. This might sound like an extreme approach, I guess it could be viewed as such, but I have a much easier time eating big plates of food when doing it as fast as possible. That means no sitting around doing other stuff whilst you eat, just focus on shovelling down the food and you’ll be surprised by how much you can eat.
When you don't give your brain the time to register satiety signals it's easier to consume more calories. Drinking smoothies is essentially eating at an extremely fast pace, that is part of why it works so well for adding easy calories.
If you practice this skill regularly you will gain the ability to down almost ridiculous amounts of food. Use this skill to impress friends and family and let them experience your vegan-food-eating capacity.
9. Make Red Lentils a Staple in Your Diet
Red lentils are the bomb. They are nutritional powerhouses, cook quickly, readily soak up any flavor and spices added and are a great way to add protein and calories.
While you might think 200 grams of raw red lentils looks like a lot, especially when you consider the fact that they absorb a lot of water, it really isn't if you make sure to really cook them down to a mush.
One of my staple meals during a bulking phase is 200 grams of lentils cooked with some spices or herb mix. It's really easy, tastes good and with some tahini on top yields about 60-70 grams of protein and 1000 calories. So if you haven't tried this terrific legume before I urge you to do so.
10. Eat Less Salad and Low-Calorie-Dense Foods
That's right, I just told you to eat less salad.
Here's the thing:
As explained previously, eating giant salads are great for weight management as vegetables are low in calorie density and high in fiber and total volume. You get to eat tons of food that fill you up really well but still maintain a low caloric intake. Pretty awesome if you want to lose some weight or in a cutting phase.
For someone that is struggling with getting enough calories in though, salads will work against your goal of weight gain.
A lunch consisting of 200 g of spinach, some tomatoes, a red onion, carrots, cucumber and some chickpeas will fill you up pretty well - but doesn't provide any significant calories.
Of course you shouldn't eliminate salads because your body thrives on the nutrients found in greens and veggies, but if you're really struggling with vegan bulking consider cutting down on them and replacing them with some of my suggestions in this article.
If you need a quick boost in nutrients, consider picking yourself up some greens powders. These contains the nutrients of a salad but on overdrive. Here are some of our favorites.
11. Your Diet Doesn't Have to Be 100% Clean All of The Time
You're skinny as hell and can't put on any significant mass no matter what you do.
Here's my permission for you to go ahead and:
Buy some vegan ice cream, high calorie meat substitutes, vegan pizza, vegan burgers and fries, junk food, or any other treat that you might desire. The reality for any plant-munching hardgainer is that it's damn hard getting enough calories when restricted to eating brown rice, broccoli and tofu.
Clean eating isn't necessarily always going to be conducive for the goal of weight gain on a plant-based diet. While your diet should revolve around healthy whole plant foods there's nothing wrong with indulging in some savory and sweet vegan treats or indulgent takeaway once of thrice per week, if that is what it takes for you to achieve your fitness goals.
12. Space Out Your Meals Throughout The Day
Intermittent fasting is a popular dieting strategy that entails having a 'eating window' of 6-8 hours and then fasting for the rest of the day. It's going to be way more difficult overeating when you're limited to only a few hours of eating which almost always results in a reduced total calorie intake.
For the purposes of vegan weight gain it's advantageous doing the exact opposite, to space out the meals throughout the day from morning to evening. What this allows for is someone with a smaller appetite to not have to deal with becoming uncomfortably full during meals, which allows for a greater total calorie intake at the end of the day.
A sample eating schedule would look something like:
7:00 am - Breakfast
9:00 am - Snack 1
11:00 am - Snack 2
1:00 pm - Lunch
3:00 pm - Snack 3 + Pre-workout (E.g., Powher)
4:00 pm - Workout
6:00 pm - Dinner
9:00 pm - Goodnight snack
2:00 am - Set your alarm and eat a bowl of porridge
(I'm kidding about the last one)
13. Try This Vegan Weight Gain Meal Plan
Some are genetically predisposed to burn of seemingly ALL calories consumed. Feels like you're of the unlucky few?
Can't gain any weight despite all of your efforts?
Try this meal plan and see if you can't get the scale moving in the right direction.
Breakfast: A protein shake and big bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup, flax seeds, nuts and soy milk
Snack 1: Handful of nuts and an apple
Snack 2: Granola bites and a banana
Lunch: As much beans and white rice as you can eat with guacamole and salsa
Snack 2: Peanut butter and jam sandwich with whole-wheat bread
Smoothie-time: Bananas, frozen berries, nut butter, soy milk, oatmeal, protein powder and some greens blended up
Dinner: Baked tofu or tempeh with a large bowl of lentil pasta and veggies
Dessert: Berries and vegan ice cream
Good-night snack: Peanut butter & banana sandwich and some dark chocolate
That should be in the ballpark of 4000+ calories I reckon. If you can't gain any weight eating this much then honestly I don't now how to help you here. Sorry.
Now I guess that at some point you also have to realize that it’s a matter of putting in as much effort in the kitchen as you do in the gym. You just have to suck it up and push your food intake beyond what is comfortable or enjoyable.
Employ some of the weight-gaining tactics I proposed in this article and see if you can’t get the scale moving.
If you found this article helpful make sure to share it with anyone that would benefit from the tips presented. Also share your vegan bulking tips in the comments!
Vegan Weight Gain: 13 Tips on How to Bulk Up for Skinny Vegans
1) Cummings, D. E., & Overduin, J. (2007, January 02). Gastrointestinal regulation of food intake. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1716217/
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